Month: November 2021

Of Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in the Winter’s Tale

I Swear I’m Not Gay, But Like, I Love You Dude

Ganymedes and Kings Nora Johnson explores the idea of how homosexual love was represented back during early modern England and how it relates to our modern understanding of homosexuality by its representation on William Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale”. In her paper she explains that our current view on sexuality and love is radically different then during this time. She uses multiple different points of reference to conclude that Leontes and Polixenes were once lovers and Leontes reaction was based upon that love. There are a few points I am going to have to ignore and instead focus on a select few. Also one more thing, there is a lot of set up for this but trust me it’s worth it!

Homosexuality is a New Concept

Johnson starts her essay by saying “When historians discuss the relation between homosexuality practice and homosexual identity in England before the eighteenth century, they often note that male same sex behaviors coincided with neither a set of psychosocial characteristics nor a clear sexual preference”. She also says that  ”…homosexual practice was part of an aristocratic sexual aesthetic, a “fashion”, in which the courtier sampled at will from an array of erotic practices, non of which could impose itself upon him as a ridged identity”. While this practice was not necessarily sexual, it was very loving and intimate. While not outwardly acknowledged, there was a clear homosexual desire that was common.

King James Has a Daddy Kink???

It was very common to deeply love another man. A perfect example of this was King James himself. He had a very ”interesting” relationship with a man named George Villers. There are multiple accounts on the level of love andinfluence they had on each other. James was deeply in love with this man and in a letter puts him akin to both a wife and a child. James says, 

“That we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you. And so god bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”

King James address’s Villiers in a way that elicits escapism. In this letter he puts his love in an image that he is allowed to love. He is the king of England. He is believed to be chosen by God to lead this country, to admit a true love embraced with sodomy would be disastrous. So, by putting this man in the shape of a wife and kid he is allowed to express his feelings. This is a common trope and idea back then.

Sodomy Isn’t Homosexuality?

Back then, sodomy lived in a much greyer area than we acknowledge today. Our current idea of homosexuality is a very new concept. To the people at this time, sodomy was a sin anyone could commit. In fact, it was only ever really brought up when it could be associated with things like chaos, anarchy, heresy, etc. It was an idea that was very loose with its meaning. There are multiple examples of homosexual desire throughout this era’s theatre. A common trope that lives within sodomy was the Ganymede. According to Dartmouth, “Greek mythology Ganymede was a prince of Troy who was and extremely beautiful young man. In the Iliad Homer even states “godlike Ganymede, / Who was the loveliest born of the race of mortals” (20:232-4). One day Zeus either sent an eagle or transformed into an eagle and kidnapped Ganymede to be cupbearer to the gods on Mt. Olympus. Their Zeus gave him eternal youth and made him his lover.” This idea was ever present in Shakespeare’s day because they were very obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology.

◦Shakespeare has even referenced the name in his play ”As You Like It”.


According to Johnson, the point of a Ganymede in plays is to be “… the effeminate boy who was stereotypically the object of homosexual desire in early modern England, was similarly imagined to be defined by his sexual availability to mature men and similarly deployed as a locus of sexual power to stigmatize or characterize.” This character trope was so powerful that it was piece of the stigmatization the theatrical profession. An example of this was in Marlow’s Edward 2 Gaveston plans to entertain his king by saying, “Sometimes a lively boy in Dian’s shape/ With hair that gilds the water it glides, /  Crownets of pearl about his nakes arms, / And in his sportful hands an olive-tree, / To hide those parts which men delight to see, / Shall bathe him in a spring.

This boy is impersonating a goddess in a very effeminate manner. All the while, it very erotic. This imagery was a very common trope back then. This goes back to how King James discussed his love. The Ganymede trope was heavily known and engrained within their culture.

So, How Does This All Relate to The Winter’s Tale?

While this trope is not technically present within this play, it is important to know for background information. This is a play that places homosexuality in a lens that can only be truly seen once these ideas are understood. Without knowing how significant boyhood is too homosexual themes, Leontes seems to be just crazy to be crazy. This entire plays conflict stands on the ground that you can at least acknowledge these symbols.

To Prove It Here’s Some Quotes

In Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 21-32 Camillo says,

“Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves!”


But Wait There Is More!

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 65-79

◦Hermione: Was not my lord / The verier wag o’ the two?

◦Polixenes:  We were as twinned lambs that did frisk I’th’ sun

And bleat the one at th’other. What we changed / Was innocence for innocence. We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed That any did. Had we persued that life, / And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared / With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven / Boldly, “Not guilty,” the imposition cleared / Heredity of ours.

◦Hermione: By this we gather / You have tripped since

◦Polixenes: O my most sacred lady, / Temptations have since then been born to’s. For / In those unfledged days was my wife a girl; / Your precious self had not then crossed the eyes / Of my young playfellow.

Looking into those Quotes

With all the information previously presented and incorporated into these lines, it is very obvious that this love extends past just friends. They were extremely close. They both want to be together, but they cannot be. Instead, they must use others to facilitate the love that they have. They cannot Polixenes implies that all of their love ended once Hermione came.

Heres a Quote Where Leontes Discusses His Sexuality to His Son

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 153-158

“… Looking on the lines / Of my boy’s face, methoughts I did recoil / Twenty-three years and I saw myself unbreeched, / In my velvet coat, my dagger muzzled / Lest it should bite its master and so prove, / As ornaments oft do, too dangerous.”

There is a lot to unpack right there. The first is a bit of historical context. It wasn’t until children were 6 that they started to wear gendered clothes. So, when Leontes says “… and saw myself unbreeched”, he is referring to back before he had to start acting like a man. To continue the idea that boyhood often was a mask for homosexuality, when he says “… my dagger muzzled / Lest it should bite his master and so prove, / As ornament oft do, too dangerous”, he is referring to his feelings on Polixenes. In a society that allows homoromantic love but condemns the acts of homosexuality it makes sense that he is referring to an idea of shame that he may still feel today.

Socrates Symposium

“Men whose bodies only are creative, betake themselves to women and beget children…. But creative souls-for there are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies-conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or retain…. And he who in youth has the seed of [virtue and wisdom] implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. … and when he finds a fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, and there is union of the two in one person, he gladly embraces him, and to such an one he is full of fair speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man . . . and at the touch and presence of the beautiful he brings forth the beautiful which he conceived long before . . . and in company they tend that which he brings forth, and they are bound together by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal. Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than any ordinary human ones?”

If you don’t want to read it that’s totally fine. To put it simply, Socrates believes that the best type of lover is not necessarily that of a male and female but one of a true companionship. One that makes twosouls one. This type of partnership is ever lasting. This is clearly very evident of Leontes view of Polixenes. And there was no way that Shakespeare knew this quote very well. What is interesting is how even though this idea is meant to be celebrated. Leontes fantasy does become his downfall soon after. And instead, this love is used to celebrate the idealisation of heterosexuality. 

Hermione The Go-Between

Due to the two men needing to have a middleman for them to express each others love for one another, Hermione becomes the main vehicle for this. Even just to ask Polixenes to stay Leontes asks her to do this for him “Tongue-tied our queen? Speak you” (1.2.27) Hermione becomes a vehicle for their love. Even before the supposed scandal Polixenes views her sexually corrupting his friend when discussing his relationship between his friend before she came around saying “O my sacred lady, / Temptations have since been born to’s” (1.2.76) They both use her to deflect their “boyhood feelings”. After Leontes sees his best friend and his wife holding hands he angerly confronts them. During his speech he uses language that heavily implies that he is using her as a board to project his own fantasies onto. “Affection! thy intention stabs the centre: / Thou does make possible things not so held, / Communicat’st with dreams;- how can this be? / With what’s unreal thou coactive art,/ and fellow’st nothing: then ‘tis very credent / Thou may’st co-join with something; and I find it, / (And that beyond commission) and I find it, / (and that to the infection of my brains, / And hard’ning of my brows).” (1.2.138-46) He says that he imagines her doing things that he fantasizes about doing with Polixenes. He even calls it an ”infection of my brains”.

The Fine-Line This Play Straddle

”The Winter’s Tale legitimates its own erotic practice while simultaneously obeying the injunction to be fruitful and multiply” Even though Shakespeare creates a deep love for the two kings, it is only once this love is defined by their children’s heterosexual relationship that the conflict resolves. This duality and message is even implied within the seasons. The conflict begins in winter: a cold desolate season, while it resolves in spring: a time associated with pregnancy and agriculture.

The Kids Bring It Full Circle

The play moves to Perdita and Florizel at a sheep shearing festival in the spring. The children of the two kings years later. Years after Leontes casts away his newborn baby onto an island, she and Polixenes’s new son fall in love. Their love is deeply strong and is celebrated. Perdita’s frankly sexual remarks to florizel indicate that this is a new pastoral to which women and heterosexual desire are most emphatically invited” (Johnson) “Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whisun pastorals. Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition.” (4.4.133-135)

 Heterosexuality Wins??

Since Leontes blow up he has lived in misery for 16 years and sworn not to marry another. It isn’t until the couple show up and it is revealed Perdita is the kings long lost daughter. Their arrival brings Polixenes in tow and everyone is forgiven. It is even implied that Hermione is alive and ready to live with her husband and daughter as a family. To prove that this scene is meant to glorify heterosexuality Peridita says this about her own marriage, “I see the play so lies/ That I must bear a part” (4.4.655-66) She knows that her marriage is not so much about her, but instead she recognises that she is just a part of her father and Polixenes’s reunion.

So I ignored A Few Things

This paper has a lot of other points in regard to gender and the Ganymede. She discusses the different gender power dynamics within its view of homosexuality and even the structure of the play. It goes into depth of Camillo’s own sexuality, and he is another middleman for the kings, and goes to elaborate that he is the literal Ganymede of the play.






Twelfth Night: Shakespeare, Queer Icon

Historically, Americans used the word “queer” to portray a type of person they deemed weird or opposite of the normal. But now, we wouldn’t even equate “weird” with “queer.” We see them as opposite sides in language and we have branched, as a majority, away from the negative connotation that comes from using queer. But that is in today’s society, what about in Renaissance England? Were they accepting? Were they allies?

My, what a distinguished gentleman! Clearly a ladies’ man! This man is William Shakespeare, known for being an English playwright from the Elizabethan era. His most notable works are Hamlet, Richard III, and Twelfth Night. Being a famous playwright, it is imaginable that a lot of what he wrote had large impacts on his audience and he was accepted widely, in knowing this we have to analyze the influence his pieces had on the world. While critics will often interpret Shakespeare as “encompassing average human experience” or “consciousness,” we know that he can’t possibly encompass it because his writing focuses on rich, privileged English men, who were a majority white. However, one of Shakespeare’s pieces is often seen as a crux for the argument that queerness has existed for a long period, and was talked about. This piece is Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written by William Shakespeare, and arguably one of his most risque pieces of literature. It follows the story of several characters, most notably; Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Malvolio, and Olivia, Sebastien, and Antonio. The characters and development we will focus on are our couplet of Viola/Cesario and Olivia.  Time to get Queer!

Our main focus will be on the queer aspects of this play, and who doesn’t love a little break from the norm? Our media outlets (yes that includes literature) should be seen as a window into the wider world. This allows us all to connect and obtain the (true) human experience.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Viola, also known as Cesario, is one of the most interesting characters within the play, and the most obviously queer! Funny how that works! Anyway, the reason I specify and include both names is that Viola/Cesario is a female character who disguises themselves as a man. This shows obvious queer symbolism in how trans-identifying people may choose to feel or even relate to this character. The character Viola would often be played by a male character, but the female character put on a male persona! It really tears apart the gender spectrum by including its own complexity within the play. This could allow people who have different identities to adjust and relate to this character because of the way the role is played. Viola dresses as a man to gain entrance into Orsino’s court, and while she is allowed to enter the club this allows her access to get intimate with both Olivia and Duke Orsino.

Viola is also known for attempting to romance Olivia but does so as Cesario. One interpretation could be that this is a heterosexual norm because Viola is portraying a man. However, by ignoring Cesario’s inner-self, that being the woman underneath the man’s clothing, is ignoring a crucial role in gender identification. Despite the outward appearance, gender isn’t something that is easily defined by behaviors or clothing! Knowing this, we have to read the interpretation as a woman trying to romance another woman. This fights the urge of Duke Orsino’s traditional courtly love language. Viola fights this urge by not regurgitating his speech word for word because she understands that the language isn’t made with the response or feelings of a woman in mind. Instead, it follows the idea of a woman’s silence as her participation and instead focuses on the language that includes Olivia in conversation. This shows a true connection between the women in a more homoerotic sense.

With just the analysis of our two characters, we can see the evident queer relationships and gender identity struggles that happen within Twelfth Night. It’s crazy to think that a piece that has aged so finely and come from a time where we don’t really see gender fluid/queer expressionism to be so full of it. Viola/Cesario is pivotal in pushing this analysis, but even in acknowledging the rebuttal of queer kinship and gender fluctuation, you can’t deny that these implications are explicit and very apparent within the play. Critics argue that Viola dressing as a man does indeed make her a man that Olivia could fall in love with, which would make the relationship heterosexual, but this invalidates gender expression with heternormativity rather than understanding that there is no real way to dress as a “man” and rather Viola is doing what she needs to do as Cesario to gain access to what she needs. This concept makes Shakespeare a premiere concierge of queer expression and livelihood by keeping something deemed estranged in the light of the common world. Thankfully, the story is also interesting ;).



Image 1: William Shakespeare

Image 2: Twelfth Night

Image 3: Crossdressing Image

Image 4: Lesbians

Image 5: Gay symbols

Image 6: Thank you



Women’s Use of Disguise in Twelfth Night and Beyond

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola disguises herself as a man for safety in a foreign country and also in remembrance of her brother who she believed had lost his life at sea. Throughout the play we see the struggles that Viola faces as a man and then when she finally professes her love to Duke and announces that she is a woman. Unfortunately women have had used this tactic to protect themselves throughout history including fictional works. One of my favorite novels is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The Marches create a family newspaper and act in their own plays. Jo wants to earn a living and uses a male identity to have her stories published.

Little Women (1994) - Cinema Cats

In order to save her father from certain death, Mulan disguises herself as man and goes to war against the Northern invaders. Facing dishonor for family and death she becomes the heroine that China needed to win the war. We watch her struggle against the idea of femininity, her cultural ideals that are thrust upon her, and finding her inner strength which leads her to her true potential. She was willing to risk it all for the love of her family. She also finds love in the process.

Disney | Mulan poster

In Just One of the Guys, Terry feels discriminated against when a position that she applies for goes to two men. She is an excellent writer so she enrolls in another high school as a male to prove that discrimination is real. Terry also falls in love and must come forward with the truth that she is actually a woman.

Forgotten Friday Flick – “Just One Of The Guys” at Why So Blu?

In a more recent adaption of Twelfth Night, She’s the Man main character Viola is faced with the loss of her female soccer team due to budget cuts.  She poses as her twin brother and enrolls in a prestigious boarding school so that she can try out for their soccer team and win against her old high school.  She falls in love with the captain of the team and is forced to tell the truth when her brother comes home from London and kisses Duke’s crush. We see Viola struggle against unfair gender roles and a nasty ex-boyfriend.

She's the Man (2006) – 15th Anniversary Review | TFM

Joan of Arc wore armor and went to battle for the French over the English until she was burned at the stake for numerous false accusations including cross-dressing in 1430. She was later exonerated by the French for her bravery.

Joan of Arc,' by Kathryn Harrison - The New York Times

Sarah Malinda Blalock enlisted in the Confederate Army so that she should go to war with her husband. She was shot in the shoulder and was forced to confess when her husband was faked an injury and was allowed to go home.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory

As you can see women have been forced to use disguises for love, protection, and to fight societal norms forced upon them by a patriarchal society. I will end this post with a quote by Shakespeare and with the strength of women before me that have been trailblazers for women’s rights.

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”


Forgotten Friday Flick – “Just One Of The Guys”

She’s the Man (2006) – 15th Anniversary Review

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory

Women and Power in Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the three female characters are each shown to have power and influence on the events of the play. This is interesting because women were generally seen as being “beneath” men during this time period, but in this play, they have a lot of influence.

One example of this power dynamic is Olivia. She, of course, is wealthy and has a very high social status. She is the most obvious example of women in power in Twelfth Night. She has various servants, and she can easily give them orders when she wants them to do something. In fact, in Act I, Sir Toby claims that Olivia herself has insisted that she will marry someone who is below her own status. He says,

“…She’ll not match above her
degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit. I have heard her


This passage indicates that Olivia intends to maintain her own power and status by refusing to marry someone who could be perceived as more powerful than her. She intends to remain a powerful woman, and she will not allow a man to diminish her power.

Aside from her obvious power and influence as a woman of status, one of the other major ways she influences the play is in her relationship with Orsino.

Despite Orsino’s many romantic advances toward Olivia, she remains adamant that she does not love him and will never marry him. This is interesting because women during this time were often expected to obey men, meaning that their own desires were often put behind men’s. However, Olivia insists upon doing what she wishes rather than relinquishing her power over her own romantic life.

However, despite Olivia’s insistence that she does not love him, Orsino believes that his love for her will eventually overpower her stubbornness. When Viola (as Cesario) points out that he would expect another woman to move on from him if he rejected her, Orsino claims that the situation is different because women cannot love as strongly or as passionately as men. He says,

“There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart. No woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That would surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.
But mine is all as hungry as the sea
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.”


This passage shows that Orsino still believes his own love to be more powerful than Olivia’s wishes. Despite the fact that Olivia is a powerful woman, Orsino still believes his own will to be more powerful than hers. This indicates that Orsino still looks down upon even powerful women, disregarding their wishes in favor of his own. He continues to pursue Olivia despite knowing that she does not want to be with him.

However, despite Orsino’s continued efforts to woo her, Olivia never gives in to his wishes, maintaining her power over her own life.

Another woman who has an influence on the events of the play is Maria. Despite being Olivia’s servant, she has a major impact on the plot- specifically for Malvolio. She plays a practical joke on him which leads him to act outlandish and irrational, which causes Olivia to have him imprisoned in a dark room to treat what she perceives as his insanity. The practical joke consisted of a letter written by Maria posing as Olivia in which she pretended to be in love with Malvolio and made several odd requests of him. In doing so, she exercised Olivia’s romantic and sexual power over Malvolio and manipulated him into doing as she wished. Then, Olivia used her power to imprison him. This shows that these two women had great power over Malvolio, even when he believed it was only Olivia.

The third woman who had a major influence on the play was Viola. As the protagonist of the play, she was the one who set many of the events in motion and caused several of the plot points. Similarly to Olivia, she was born with some level of status; however, she also gained power by posing as Cesario. By pretending to be a man and acting as Orsino’s servant, she was able to do many things she would not have been able to do as a woman. One example of this is her close relationship with Orsino.

Given Orsino’s attitude toward Olivia, it is not unreasonable to assume that he does not have much respect for women. He ignores Olivia’s desires in favor of his own, disregarding her own wishes entirely and insisting that she is not capable of loving someone as passionately as he loves her because she is a woman. However, despite this, Viola is able to bond with him. By posing as a man, she elevates her own status in his eyes and puts herself in a position of higher power than she previously might have been with a misogynist. Due to this power she gives herself, she is able to connect with Orsino and form a bond with him that leads to the two of them falling in love.

This idea that Viola gives herself more power by masquerading as a man can also be seen in the popular modern film adaptation of this play, She’s the Man. In this movie, Viola poses as a teenage boy in order to join a boy’s soccer team and prove that she can play better than many of the other boys. Like Shakespeare’s Viola, she, too, uses her elevated status as a man to her advantage by exercising her power with men.

The concept of Viola gaining more status by pretending to be a man shows the general misogyny of the people around her, but it also indicates that women are capable of more than men often believe. By blending into society as a man, Viola proves that she has at least the same worth and capability as a man, and that women can be powerful, too.

What is Love in Twelfth Night ?

Twelfth Night opens with the shipwreck between Viola and her twin brother Sebastian. She is sadden by this but find refuge as being the servant to a Duke near by, Orsino dressed as a man. Orsino is overwhelmed with his love for Olivia, a Duchess in Illyria and has sent for her love many times. A clear infatuation is what Orsino feels for Olivia, and he is drowning in his self pity and questioning love and women.

“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
Oh, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.”

What is truly love here? Shakespeare writes it so eloquently, and his male characters fall hard into the expectation of the women around, and want love to come to them as swift as music Orsino compares. It is the wooing of his words that he sends to his now named servant, Cesario (Viola dressed asa man) That he thinks will bring Olivia out of the mourning for her brother and into his arms. However, it only brings Cesario closer to him, and he falls in love! He repeats Orisinos words of love though feeling them himself for his master, and showers her in compliments,

“Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty—I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her. I would be loath to cast away my speech, for besides that it is excellently well penned, I have taken great pains to con it. Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn. I am very comptible, even to the least sinister usage.”

In Cesario’s words is where Olivia falls in love. She is attracted to his passion, though it is from Orsino and she likes the way Cesario articulates his feelings of love. Cesario adores Orsino’s want for love in return, and only wants to fulfill his begging heart.
Who is really in love, infatuated, or in like of whom? Cesario/Viola sees the tenderness in Orsino’s philosophy of love. Olivia is in like with Cesario’s delivery and Orsino is still convinced that Olivia is still the one. This initial standing of feeling that this man and woman have for this one man/woman, is the whole confusion to the play. What we know in the end is that, man gets woman dressed as a man and woman gets man who is actually a man but she thinks is the original man/woman from before who is actually the woman’s twin brother. Where does the love that Olivia has for Cesario go? The Shakespearan world will never know.

I would have loved to see this play out as a love triangle.